Home Commentary I Can’t Find My Little Girl

I Can’t Find My Little Girl

Pensacola Beach Lifeguards: Heston, David, and Aiden.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my chair at Casino Beach when I saw another mother’s panic-stricken face. It’s hard to miss the look of a mother desperately looking for her child. 

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It’s that “surely she’s around here somewhere, so I’m not going to lose it just yet, but I’m about to lose it, because what if she’s not” look. I asked her if everything was okay and she said, “I can’t find my daughter. She’s six years old.” 

Six-year-old girls are “tee nincy,” as we say in the South. And on this sunny, first full beach day of the season, it was packed. It looked more like a Where’s Waldo poster than a crowd of distinctly different people. Big, small, tall, old, young, it’s amazing how different we all feel until you’re looking for a lost child. Suddenly everyone looks the same – just a blur of faces and bodies. The father and a pre-teen brother, the other half of the lost girl’s family, were also anxious but focused and looking. 

I immediately turned to the water. With a yellow flag flying, a rip current could snatch a little one in a heartbeat. I looked out past where the waves were breaking – nothing.

The mother shared her little girl’s name and the father showed me a photo taken in the hours since they’d arrived at the beach. A same-day photograph of a girl in a fun swimsuit, playing in the sand. I stared hard at her little face. I took the mom straight to the lifeguard stand and learned this was the second child missing in a short time (the earlier one was found) and that a separate water rescue was underway.

While I knew there was probably a process for lost children, I made no assumptions and called 911. The 911 operator was efficient, immediately directing me to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office dispatch. The dispatcher for ECSO calmly clarified our precise location and within literal moments, the best-looking calvary I’ve ever seen were zooming toward us in four-wheeled vehicles.

There were thousands of beachgoers. Speakers blared music. Waves crashed. A cacophony of voices and laughter blanketed the chaotic scene. The father looked at me and said, “You don’t think she would go in the water, do you? Surely she wouldn’t go in the water.”

It was obvious he was verbalizing the mental panic that all parents experience when a child goes missing, especially near an open body of water. He kept repeating that she was “right there and then she was gone.” I looked to the spot where the family had been and saw a pile of half-packed beach items collected for leaving. I imagined the parents packing while simultaneously watching the kids and knew how easy it would be for one to slip away. 

I turned back to the water and scanned from the waterline directly out as far as the end of the pier, zig-zagging my eyes across the water. There were still no signs of anything other than sparkling blues and greens. 

I knew of other incidents of children momentarily disappearing at the beach with a newfound friend or getting disoriented in the crowd, each with good outcomes. But with every passing moment, the fear creeps in. The what-ifs are endless and from real-life experience, the realities are, too. 

Years ago, I worked at Disney World in Guest Services and our missing child training was racing through my head. I shuddered at the disheartening things I’d learned there and prayed for protection over this child. “Surely not,” I whispered to myself.

After obtaining the description and name of the child, the deputies fanned out in an organized fashion, methodically zig-zagging up and down the beach. Within minutes, the little girl was found a football field and a half away in a sea of people. She’d likely gotten turned around and started walking in the wrong direction. 

The family, on vacation from Chicago, gave and received hugs and tearfully collected their things. 

Life can change on a dime. Children are fast. Nature is faster. Accidents happen. And so do unavoidable, and unpreventable things. 

Sometimes our humanity outpaces our best-laid plans and efforts, but thankfully there are times when heroes save the day. 

My family has been on the receiving end of heroic efforts by first responders. If you’ve ever experienced it, you never again take for granted the role of the helpers in our society. 

If you are a helper…thank you. Thank you for caring for your neighbor. Thank you for risking your own life to save ours. Thank you for helping us care for, influence, and sometimes save our children. 

And honey, amen for the Pensacola Beach Lifeguards and Escambia County Sheriffs Department (Santa Rosa, and city police, too!) Am I right? I can’t even begin to imagine what they see and deal with during beach season.  

Escambia County Sheriff’s Office on duty on Pensacola Beach.

Take a moment to review beach safety over at Visit Pensacola Beach here: https://www.visitpensacolabeach.com/beach-safety/

It’s easy to get distracted in a crowd or a new place. Have a plan when enjoying the beach and water with children and consider the following tips when beaching with kids:

Clothe children in brightly colored swimwear for easy spotting. 

Discuss linked beach safety rules with children upon every arrival to the beach. Young children may not remember safety guidelines from previous trips or discussions.

Take a picture of each child upon arrival at the beach.

Tie a brightly colored ribbon or flag to your beach umbrella that sets your “beach spot” apart from the others; have the child look at the location and details of the spot and repeat back to you what they see. “We are directly in front of the Beach Ball Water tower, halfway between the parking lot and the water.” Neighboring beach spots and people can change, so reference something that will not move: restaurants, signage, etc.

Designate a visible meeting place, like a lifeguard stand, for children to return to if they cannot find your beach spot. 

Take a picture of each child upon arrival at the beach. 

Assign an adult or older teenager to always have eyes on swimmers, regardless of the swimmers’ ages or abilities. 

Create a buddy system and advise children not to go anywhere without their buddy. 

If you have uncertainty about navigating Gulf waters, wear a life vest! 

If you’re visiting, we’re sure glad to see ya and hope you have a good time. 

Everybody else, I’m gonna tell y’all like your Mama does…drink your water, put your sunscreen on, and act like ya been somewhere before. 

Love y’all. Be safe.